I saw this little story floating around on Facebook somewhere, and the very first thing I thought of was Rowan and Star. So I decided to smash it all together, in an effort to stall on Star's Journey. If you haven't been following it, you won't know who Star or Luke or Matthew are; but there are no spoilers, either, so enjoy in any case.

Anyway, y'all know how me and my culinary degree love to write about food. Also, I know I've mentioned that I might write blurbs about Star's childhood, so here's one now. I don't know if it will this will ever be referenced in Star's Journey, but… We'll see. ;)

2222222222

An Unusual Meal

2222222222

Rowan looked up from his work, frowning in sudden concern. It had been quiet in the small kitchen of his small house, where he had been standing before the stove for some time. The only noise had been the bubbling of the potion he had been stirring, the turning of pages as he followed its recipe, and his own occasional vague humming over the directions. It had been a morning like most others, and he hadn't expected it to be particularly interesting.

Except he was now positive that he heard someone crying nearby. The pitiful sound was echoing from down his own hallway through the open backdoor, left open to allow the breeze in on this warm spring day. More and more concerned—because he knew the voice in those sobs entirely too well—he covered the pot with a lid and closed his book, setting it aside for later.

Much later, perhaps, it occurred to him as he hurried toward the backdoor. Being the father of a strange child took time and patience, after all.

As he had feared, he spotted Star, his only child, without having to search for her. The girl was kneeling in the shade of the large tree in their backyard, clutching a battered notebook to her chest, and weeping as though someone had died. And to her, perhaps, it was indeed as if someone had died; a trail of torn papers seemed to have followed her across the yard, clearly ripped from her notebook, though certainly not by her own hand.

Star loved words, and filling notebooks with her thoughts and ideas and great stories – a fact that most children her age knew, and mainly used to hurt her. Rowan couldn't count the times she had been teased for having such a gentle talent, and it made his heart ache for her. Not really needing to hear what had happened, he knelt in the grass beside the girl and pulled her close, wishing it was enough to protect her from the world's small dangers.

"Star, are you hurt?" he asked at once. To his relief, the girl shook her head into his shoulder, but she didn't stop crying.

"It's not fair," Star sobbed instead. "I try and I try, but it's never good enough for anyone! Life is so hard, papa, and I'm so tired of t!"

Unfair, to be certain, Rowan agreed. She was only 11 years old. Her only worries ought to have been doing well at her lessons and staying out of any serious mischief. Instead, she found herself facing a small army, and it was largely expected that she face it by herself, without crying or getting upset, even though she was still a little girl. No less had been expected of her father, after all; and it had been horribly unfair then, as well.

It wouldn't do to coddle her in this moment, to insist that he would fix all her problems and keep her safe, because that wouldn't prepare her for the future. He could also see that it was pointless to try to comfort her, pointing out all her strengths and the beauties of the world, because she was heartbroken; he couldn't bear to gloss over her pain like that, the way so many people had when he had been her age. But he couldn't bear to sit idly and do nothing, either, while she wept hopelessly in his arms.

Then, he got an idea. A rather brilliant one, if he did say so, himself. He did his best to dry his daughter's face, kissed her dark hair, and helped her climb to her feet.

"Come with me into the house, my love," he said, leading her to the door. "I'll make you something to eat. We will share a meal and talk this through. You will feel better then, I think."

Star shook her head vaguely, but said nothing. She plainly wasn't in a mood to want to feel better. All the same, she went where her father led her, sank into the chair at the kitchen table he pulled out for her, and then sat in dismal silence while he got to work.

Rowan could sense that Star was watching him listlessly, though her mind was in many places. She appeared more interested in her ruined notebook, opening it on the table and leafing bitterly through the pages that had been torn out, trying uselessly to put them back in order. By the time she gave up and closed the book again, her father had filled two pots and a tea kettle with water and set them to boil on the stove.

No doubt she is beginning to wonder what I might be making, with so much boiling water, Rowan mused, smirking to himself over his own cleverness, hoping that Star would be as delighted in the end as he was right now.

As he had hoped, he felt Star's empty stare become curious and confused as he took a few simple items from their pantry. On a plate by the stove he placed a pair of new potatoes, a couple of brown eggs, and a packet of sharp spearmint tea – Star's favorite.

A plain and sturdy breakfast, to be sure; but certainly she was wondering why he would prepare it as a midday meal. She kept her silence, though, and asked no questions. She simply continued to watch curiously as her father went about cooking the items he had taken out.

The potatoes went into the first pot, skins and all, with just a little salt. A few minutes passed, and the eggs were added to the second pot, again with a little salt. The kettle began to whistle, and a pot of tea was set aside to steep while the other items cooked.

"While we have a few minutes, let's see what we can do about this treasure," Rowan suggested, pushing his sleeves back into place as he sat at the table. He took Star's notebook and looked over the state of the pages for himself, disliking what he saw. Whole sheaths of pages had been ripped out of the binding. The stitches along the spine were mostly broken, where those pages had been torn out. The pages themselves were stuffed in a mess back into the cover without order, gathered up in a hurry. Many had been crumpled and smoothed out again, even ripped into small pieces.

The notebook was completely destroyed, Rowan realized with a sinking heart. The words could all be copied into a new book, but there was no way to repair this one. Looking at it, remembering the trail of loose pages still littered across his yard, it seemed that some pages that would never be recovered at all.

"I worked so hard on it," Star whimpered as she watched her father's face changing over it. "It was nearly full. I had so many ideas in it, and now I can't even find some of them."

Rowan set the notebook aside, unable to do anything for it now, and reached across the table for Star's small, nimble hands. "Tell me what happened, exactly. Who did this to you?"

Star sniffled and ducked her head, refusing to look at him. "Some other children in the village. Matthew and Luke were there, too…"

"Oh, Star," Rowan sighed, "I might have known. You always let those two get to you. Why didn't you walk away from them, as we keep telling you to?"

"I tried!" Star exclaimed, exasperated. "I did walk away from them, I didn't even say anything to them, just like you told me to! They followed me. Matthew snatched my notebook, because he's taller and stronger than I am and he knows it. When I asked to have it back, he started tearing the pages out. I begged him to stop, but he laughed at me and handed the book to Luke. He wasn't going to tear out anymore pages, I think; but then his brother dared him to do it, so he pulled out 20 pages at once! Some of the other children even picked up the torn pages, crumpled them up, and started throwing them at me! It was awful!"

She buried her face in her hands, sobbing again, and Rowan couldn't think of telling her not to. There was no reason in the world why she shouldn't be crying now. And he couldn't remember a time recently when he had been quite so angry; keeping his voice even was becoming difficult.

"Did anyone else see this happening?" he demanded. "Did no one step in to stop them? Did no one try to help you?"

Star shook her heard again. "No. Lots of people saw it, but no one did anything. I called for help, but no one answered me. I asked someone for help finding all the pages – a farmer I think, I don't know his name – but he rolled his eyes and went on his way. He didn't even answer me…"

It was a great deal of work to be done, and Rowan hated that he was getting used to it. But he would find out which other children had been there, and he would find out the name of the man who had left his distraught child alone in the middle of the street, and he would make sure they were all punished. If she had been any other child, he thought angrily, she would have been defended at once. This wouldn't have been allowed to happen to any other child of Rin, the way it had happened to both of them.

The people liked to think that it was their way of making their small, shy, weak folk stronger. That it somehow prepared them for the harshness of the world, in a way that most of them didn't need to be prepared for in the first place. That was a poor way to excuse their cruelty for what it was; everybody knew it, deep in their hearts, but no one wanted to admit it.

"It was only a book," he could hear this unknown farmer arguing with a baffled shrug. "Not even a real book – just a jumble of a little girl's childish fancies. How do you expect her to face real troubles if she still falls to pieces over nothing? She ought to know better by now."

It was what he knew many people would say, when he stood up for his only child and her right to walk about the village without hear of harassment. As Star has said, life was hard – so much harder than it needed to be. Nothing was really going to change that. She was an oddity in a place where oddness was barely tolerated, and she would have to bear that for the rest of her life, as her father had before her.

The best he could do was to shield her from true danger, and do all he could to arm her heart and mind for the future. Which was why he was so thrilled about the meal he was making.

A few minutes passed in contemplative silence before Rowan finally pried himself away from the table, clearing his throat loudly to change the subject.

"I nearly forgot about all this food I've made," he said, forcing his anger away and allowing himself a chuckle instead. "That would hardly do, after you've had such a busy morning."

Star tilted her head to one side, frowning. "I don't feel much like eating," she said sullenly, nearly snapping. "And why are you so cheerful all of a sudden?"

Rowan didn't answer. He took a long spoon and fished the eggs and potatoes from their pots, and began preparing meal plates as if nothing had happened.

"Papa, will you please tell me what this is all about?" Star pleaded, sounding more and more put out with him, but still he didn't answer. In fact, just to teach her a little patience, he took his time in finishing the tea and setting the table.

Finally, the two sat across from each other at the table, each with a boiled potato, an egg, and a cup of steaming, fragrant tea before them. Star was staring at her plate, aghast with confusion. Rowan sat with his hands calmly folded in front of him, excited to see what would come of this meal.

"Tell me, my Small Star, what do you see?"

Star pinned him with a look and shrugged helplessly. "I see a potato, an egg, and a cup of tea, that's all."

"Hm. Are you sure? Look a little harder."

Star sighed and stared at her plate for a moment, before using the fork she had been given to poke and prod the steaming foods a bit. The fork sank into the boiled potato at once, piercing the thin skin with no effort. She used the flat side of the fork to tap the shell of the egg until it cracked, and she carefully peeled it away; beneath the dark brown shell, the pearly white inside was hard and tough. She picked up the cup of tea, blew on it a bit to cool it, and then sipped it with relish; even though she was upset, it was already working wonders on her bruised spirits.

She set the cup down and looked over the items again, less angry but still not understanding. Now Rowan picked up his fork and pointed to each item in turn.

"As you said, my dear, life is hard. It is hard on all people, in their own times. Think of the boiling water as the hard times in life, and the meal we are sharing as the people those hard times happen to."

Now Star's pale eyes grew wide, and he saw that she was beginning to understand.

"Look at the potato, Star. When hardships overcame it, what happened to it?"

She stabbed her fork deep into the soft flesh and twisted it open. "It became soft," she answered, fluffing the white, steaming insides. "It was hard as a rock before; but the boiling water cooked it, and made it soft all the way through.

"That it did. Now look at the egg. When hardships overcame it, what happened to it?"

Star picked up the egg and began peeling away more of the shell. "The opposite happened," she answered as more of the egg was revealed. "It was liquid before; but the boiling water cooked it, too. Instead of becoming soft, it became solid all the way through."

"Now look at the tea, Star. When hardships overcame it, what happened to it?"

Star peered at the cup for a moment, looking ready to answer at once, but then furrowing her brow in thought. The answer was not so simple as the others, now that she thought of it.

"I mean, the tea isn't cooked, exactly," she said slowly. "It is changed, as the others were, but… Oh, I don't know…"

"Yes, indeed, the tea was changed when boiled," Rowan agreed, "but the leaves themselves have remained more or less the same. What was changed, in fact, was the water around it. The tea has changed it into something entirely new, do you see?"

"Oh… I suppose I do," the girl answered, glancing at her cup of tea with new appreciation.

"Life is hard on all people, Star, but it is up to the people to decide how those hardships will change them. Some folk are like the potato – they allowed life to defeat them and beat them down. They give up easily, back away from hardships, because they haven't got any fight left in them. Other folk are like the egg – they allowed life to harden them, inside and out. They have no fear of hardships; but in their own way, they have been defeated, too."

"Oh, like Bronden," Star commented, a little too quickly, causing her father a painful snort of laughter that couldn't be helped.

"In a way," he answered slowly. "Well… Then there are the rare folk who are like the tea – circumstances overcome them and change them, certainly. But moreover, they change their circumstances. They see their challenges and hardships not as an enemy who will defeat them, or an obstacle to be beaten, but as an opportunity to change the world around them. To make something new out of something doubtful."

Star's whole round face, so like his own, was wondrous now. Her blue eyes, so like her mother's, were shining with delight as he had hoped they might. She understood. And she had found some courage and strength.

"So tell me, Star, which will you be today: the potato, the egg, or the tea?"

For the first time all day, Star grinned her marvelous grin, and she reached for her cup.

"I will be the tea," she said firmly. Then her face fell again. "Although I'm still very sad about my notebook, and I have no idea what I should do to change things right now…"

"Well, when we have finished eating, I will find you a new notebook," her father suggested, cracking the peel of his own egg. "I know it can't replace this one, exactly; but you managed to save most of your notes, and you can start copying them into something whole. It isn't much, but I hope it can help make a start."

"I would like that," Star agreed, raising her bare egg in thanks. "Papa, I feel a lot better now. Thank you for helping me."

"Of course, love. I am your father; it's what I'm here for."

"Can I ask one thing more?"

"Certainly."

Star grinned again, a bit sheepishly this time. "I prefer butter on my potatoes…?"

And Rowan smiled back and pushed his plate away, happy to oblige.